Housing research

Posted on 31 March 2012 2 comments

“Houses and housing standards are a measure of a country’s present achievement as well as an important part of its future. We shape that future while surrounded by dwellings built by past generations, recalling both their triumphs and their mistakes.

It is part of our responsibility to learn what we can from the past and the present and to try and predict, as far as we can, what future needs will be.”

From: Houses and People – a review of the user studies at the Building Research Station (1966)

Research is an important part of architectural practice and can take many forms. A subject can be studied from different perspectives: historical, cultural, social, scientific or technical. When it comes to housing, research can help inform the design and layout of homes based on people’s thoughts about their living spaces. How do we learn about people’s expectations and aspirations around housing?

When the RIBA launched their Homewise campaign for better homes in September 2011, they also established a Future Homes Commission to look at the quality of new build housing in the UK. The commission will investigate issues such as what people want and need from their homes and whether the design and delivery of new homes is fit for purpose. It will present its findings and recommendations in autumn 2012.

Conducting original research can be time-consuming, but there is also a very large body of existing research available for review and study. For example, a 1988 book called Housing as if People Mattered draws together the findings from approximately one hundred housing case studies (forty-seven of which are from Britain). The introduction to the book states:

“Architects and planners who design housing schemes work under especially severe constraints. The most serious of these, and often the hardest to recognise is the lack of input from the people who must live with their designs. The immediate clients are usually public or private agencies, not the eventual tenants.

Under such circumstances the ordinary give and take between designer and user that seems a prerequisite to a satisfying design cannot take place. Architects are usually required to fall back on their own experience and their perceptions of the future tenants’ needs.

There is, however, an alternative. Architects and planners can also draw on the accumulated experience of people who already live in housing developments.

Over the past two decades many designers and social scientists have asked residents to comment on the design of their living spaces. Such post-occupancy evaluations (POEs) provide useful information about what works and what fails from the residents’ perspectives.”

Over the past few years, CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) has also produced many housing research publications. For example, a 2005 CABE publication called What Home Buyers Want surveyed people’s attitudes to their homes. The publication states:

“While the views of potential consumers should influence the form of the product they are going to purchase, we should seek to understand the deeper reasons behind responses rather than simply taking them at face value.

First it will be necessary to identify those views which are soundly based on evidence and must be allowed to influence practice.

The second task is to identify those opinions which, because they are based on popular misconceptions, need to be corrected where there is empirical evidence available.

Recent history can teach us lessons in this respect. It is acknowledged that there was little consumer involvement in the housing programmes of the 1960s, many of the products of which have proved so disastrous, yet simply to have followed preferences expressed by consumers would not have necessarily provided better homes.”

The CABE report also acknowledges that we often express contradictory or unrealistic opinions about the types of homes and amenities we’d ideally like access to:

“Of course, not all individual aspirations can be met. Not everyone can have a detached house with a garden in quiet surroundings, a view of pastoral landscape, be within easy reach of a good school, a variety of specialised shops, a railway station and a motorway.

Housing choice involves decisions made by the rest of the community about wider priorities such as the economy, service provision and climate change. These inevitable trade-offs between the private preferences for the home and the shared aspirations for the neighbourhood are reflected in the sometimes contradictory views expressed by home buyers. Consumer preferences cannot dictate policy, but should help to inform it.”

When we look at housing research from the past, how confident can we be that the findings still hold strong today? How far back do we go before we question the continuing validity of a particular piece of research or point of view?

There are some opinions held by the public that don’t seem to have changed much over the past few decades. For example, this passage from a government report published over 65 years ago still seems to hold true today:

“House vs Flat”

“We are aware of the keen controversy of the house versus the flat. Our evidence shows that flats are unpopular with large sections of the community, particularly families with children. It also suggests that the principal reason for this unpopularity are noise; lack of privacy; the absence of a private garden; the difficulties of supervising children at play; and the necessary rule against keeping pets.”

From: Design of dwellings – report of the design of dwellings sub-committee of the Central Housing Advisory Committee (HMSO, 1944)

And here’s another view on the same subject from the book Housing as if People Mattered:

“Virtually every housing preference study conducted in the English-speaking world indicates that the ideal dwelling for the great majority of households with children is a simple house with yard…Where family life is concerned, the general public has strongly resisted all attempts by the architectural profession to convince them of the merits of something different (for example, high-rise flats), and it seems unlikely that people will discard this image of home in the foreseeable future.

For this reason, if there were but one guideline for medium- to high-density family housing, it would be this: the more you incorporate into your design the essential amenities of the detached or semi-detached house, the more satisfied the residents will be.

These essential amenities seem to be (in no particular order): rooms of at least minimum legal size, a private entrance at ground level, a private open space (garden, yard, balcony, patio), parking reasonably close to the dwelling, and an individualized facade or opportunities to personalize.”

Research into what people expect or prefer in their own homes can reveal how much new build homes deliver or deviate from those preferences. And some of the issues and concerns raised in older research still seem topical today. For example, what do people make of the narrow room proportions so common in new build housing today (including many architect-designed schemes)? Does the shape of these rooms place constraints on movement, layout and other factors?

“Occupants’ opinions of the shape of their living room were influenced by the ease with which they could arrange and display their furniture in the manner they considered appropriate, and they disliked a room shape that made this arrangement difficult to achieve.”

The image below shows a typically narrow living room, dining room and bedroom in a new build flat. These room proportions look horrible to me. But what do occupants really feel about these spaces?

narrow room proportions in a new build flat

Below is a graphic that shows an architect’s layout of furniture in a house and how the occupants actually arranged their furniture when they moved in. This is from the Architect’s Journal, August 1966. Click the image for a larger view.

architect's layout of furniture in a house compared with occupants
Layout of furniture in a house by the architect and the occupants. Click the image for a larger view.

It would be fascinating to see a more up-to-date version of this graphic comparing the “brochure layout” of a new-build property with the actual layout once residents move in. In fact it would be interesting to simply analyse whether variations in the placement of furniture are even possible in some new builds given their miserly room proportions.


It’s always fascinating to trawl through housing design publications from the past. You gain a sense of how much (or how little) issues in housing design have changed over the decades. Were the concerns from previous years different to the design problems we face now? What’s surprising is how familiar many issues from the past seem today. It’s over 50 years for example since the Parker Morris report on housing space standards was published in Britain. One might have hoped that housing space standards would be a non-issue by now, but they remain as relevant today as they were in the past. It’s a depressing reflection of how little progress we have made in housing design.

There is a lot we can learn from housing research already undertaken. But it’s clear that much of this research appears to be either ignored or forgotten and that we continue to build housing in Britain of a very poor standard.

May 2012 update: the RIBA, as part of their Homewise campaign, commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct research into how people use their homes and what they look for when choosing a home. The research has now been published as a free report titled The way we live now. The research is qualitative in nature: in-depth interviews were conducted with five households.

The report findings are welcome, but not particularly revelatory or surprising. The report confirms what many people will already assume to be rather obvious: we like large rooms with high ceilings and natural light. We need private space away from other household members. We also need quiet space (within our homes and soundproofing between neighbouring homes). We want dedicated space for utility tasks such as laundry and ironing. And of course, we want more storage. Do architects not know any of this already?

To read more, visit the RIBA’s Homewise site.

2 comments

Paul Dutton

1 July 2012 18:04 GMT

Interesting article. I do find it quite annoying how architects assume people live their lives. A lot of new flat design that appeals often to young people moving out for the first time sells an idea of living. I have a living room/diner and a small kitchen (1960′s design), more modern properties and the refurbished varieties of my current building now include open plan kitchen living. This may appeal to landlords and flat sharer’s but I really don’t want the product of my kitchen efforts on display despite what I am told I want! If people are going to live for extended periods of time together and families as they get older then rooms that are divisible and properties that extend privacy within are needed.

A. Hussein blog author

1 July 2012 22:47 GMT

Thanks for your comment. I agree with what you say. Open plan layouts are often described as “flexible” because you have one continuous or unbroken space. But when an open plan room is single aspect and has long narrow proportions (which is quite common in new build flats), it can be impossible to partition off rooms if you later want that flexibility.

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